Lexical chunks vs Latin

When people think about language teaching or learning, they sometimes assume that it consists of breaking sentences down into grammatical formulas. Words are there to be dropped into specific slots, and aside from changing their form a bit sometimes, Bob’s your uncle as far as sentence construction goes. 

Of course, there are amusing phrases such as ‘Bob’s your uncle’, which are not governed by any pattern. And multi word verbs, like ‘break down’ as well as less idiomatic combinations such as ‘drop into’ or ‘aside from’. 

These are all, by and large, fixed, in the same way that if you want to talk about a British parking lot you need to use two words. ‘Car park’ (or ‘parking lot’ for that matter) – is it one word or two? It’s certainly one unit of meaning, just as ‘by and large’ cannot even be ‘large and by’, let alone use a different word altogether. ‘By and huge’, anyone? 

These fixed phrases certainly don’t have to be particularly colourful. They can be rather mundane linkers, like ‘of course’. Or ‘as well as’. Or ‘such as’.

And then you get things that look a lot like they might be grammar structures, but which can really be very static. If I were you, I’d just accept that there’s more to life than grammar right now. 

See what I did there? ‘If I were you I’d…’ Another fixed phrase, this time a frame for a full sentence. And you thought that was just second conditional, a formula of if-plus-subject-plus-past simple-comma-subject-plus-would-plus-base form to slot the words into. 

You can tell I’m having fun with this.

It also turns out, thank you the computational power of computers which have been fed large numbers of different texts, that even if they are not fixed, a lot of word combinations are highly predictable. Like ‘highly predictable’. Rather than ‘strongly predictable’. 

Anyway… ooooh, wanna bet whether that started as more than one word back in the day?

ANYWAY. This is the difference between vocabulary and lexis.

You can get quite lost in categorising the different types of lexical phrases. Want to tell me which of the examples above is a binomial? Go on, answers below, etc etc etc.

Which is why it’s much easier to not worry about it too much and label them all prefabricated lexical chunks, or chunks of you are on familiar dropping round for tea without prior warning terms. No need to blunder about butchering your categorisation like a bull in a China shop. One size fits all (not ‘one size fits everyone’. Or at least, not with the same punch).

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It has taken probably thirty years to integrate lexical chunks into mainstream language teaching, beyond the low frequency but fun phrases such as ‘like a bull in a China shop’. 

You can tell it’s not niche anymore by the way that even the most mainstream coursebooks are clearly influenced by the desire to draw students’ attention to all of the above and more, and that others even market themselves as being lexically driven.

What I wonder is, where does the recent drive to introduce Latin to the masses in the UK fit in with this? Latin, it seems to me, exists to teach logic, not a language. Well, it’s not a language any more, is it? It is something you can use to mess about with pattern recognition, and pattern application though. The ultimate grammar crunching course. The ultimate logic chopping game.

I think I prefer ELT’s current obsession with imposing critical thinking skills on teenagers. In addition to grammar. Not via.

Not quite sure in any case why you can’t do that to UK school kids with, say, Italian instead, which might at least also give you a passing chance of ordering your cappuccino and pizza in Rome more successfully. As well as a fighting chance (but not a boxing chance) of understanding Latin too if that is deemed absolutely necessary. Or is that too pre Brexit, pre pandemic a suggestion? No need for actually useful languages any more.

I also want to know what they are leaving off the current, already quite packed curriculum to fit it in.

Although I suppose there has always been a rich tradition (but not a wealthy tradition) of learning Latin tags off by heart, the better to stun your audience with your erudition. So perhaps lexical chunks will be more part of dead language learning than I think. 

Or perhaps the headlines I saw floating round on social media are designed to present the suggestion as more done and dusted (but not…) and more compulsory than it actually is. I’ll grant you the topic seems to have been quietly dropped, so perhaps it was more of a dead cat diversion tactic than a serious suggestion. Still, got a blog post out of my mild irritation. Eventually. Look, I’ve been busy.

What do you think?

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